Why This Omega-3 Fatty Acid Is Critical to Your Diet
By Adda Bjarnadottir
It is a part of every cell in your body, plays a vital role in your brain and is absolutely crucial during pregnancy and infancy. Since your body can't produce it in adequate amounts, it's essential to get it from your diet.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids.Photo credit: Shutterstock
This article explains everything you need to know about DHA.
What is DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)?
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid.
It's 22 carbons long, has 6 double bonds and is mainly found in seafood, such as fish, shellfish, fish oils and some types of algae.
Technically, it can be synthesized from another plant-based omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, this process is very inefficient and only 0.1–0.5 percent of ALA is converted into DHA in your body (6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
Because your body can't make DHA in significant amounts, you need to get it from your diet or supplements.
Bottom Line: DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is vital for your skin, eyes and brain. Your body can't produce it in adequate amounts, so you need to get it from your diet.
How Does it Work?
DHA is an unsaturated fatty acid with 6 double bonds. This means it's very flexible.
It's mainly located in cell membranes, where it makes the membranes and gaps between cells more fluid (14).
This makes it easier for cells to send and receive electrical signals, which is their way of communicating (15).
Therefore, adequate levels of DHA seem to make it easier, quicker and more efficient for cells to communicate.
Having low levels in your brain or eyes may slow the signaling between cells, resulting in poor eyesight or altered brain function.
Bottom Line: DHA makes the membranes and gaps between cells more fluid, making it easier for cells to communicate.
Top Food Sources of DHA
DHA is mainly found in seafood, such as fish, shellfish and algae.
Some fish oils, such as cod liver oil, can provide as much as 1 gram of DHA in one tablespoon (10–15 ml) (17).
Just keep in mind that fish oils may also be high in vitamin A, which can be harmful in large amounts.
However, it may be hard to get enough from your diet alone. So if you don't regularly eat the foods mentioned above, taking a supplement may be a good idea.
Bottom Line: DHA is mostly found in fatty fish, shellfish, fish oils and algae. Grass-fed meat, dairy and omega-3 enriched eggs may also contain small amounts.
Effects on the Brain
DHA is the most abundant omega-3 in your brain and plays a critical role in its development and function.
It Plays a Major Role in Brain Development
DHA intake during the third trimester of pregnancy determines the baby's levels, with the greatest accumulation occurring in the brain during the first few months of life (3).
These parts of the brain are responsible for processing information, memories and emotions. They are also important for sustained attention, planning and problem solving, as well as social, emotional and behavioral development (4, 5, 23).
In animals, decreased DHA in a developing brain leads to a reduced amount of new nerve cells and altered nerve function. It also impairs learning and eyesight (24).
Bottom Line: DHA is essential for brain and eye development. A deficiency in early life is linked to learning disabilities, ADHD and other disorders.
It May Have Benefits for the Aging Brain
Interestingly, many of these changes are also seen when DHA levels decrease.
Bottom Line: A DHA deficiency may disrupt brain function. Supplements may improve memory, learning and verbal fluency for certain people.
Low Levels Are Linked to Brain Diseases
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in older people.
Studies show that higher blood DHA levels are linked to a reduced risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's (56).
Bottom Line: Low DHA levels are linked to an increased risk of developing memory complaints, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Effects on Eyes and Vision
DHA is a very important membrane component in the eye. It helps activate a protein called rhodopsin, a membrane protein in the rods of the eye.
Bottom Line: DHA is important for vision and various functions inside the eye. A deficiency may cause vision problems in children.
Effects on Heart Health
Omega-3 fatty acids have generally been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
This applies especially to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oils, such as EPA and DHA.
Their intake can improve many risk factors for heart disease, including:
- Blood triglycerides: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids may reduce blood triglycerides by up to 30 percent (65, 66, 67, 68, 69).
- Blood pressure: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils and fatty fish may reduce blood pressure in people with high blood pressure (70, 71, 72).
- Cholesterol levels: Fish oils and omega-3s may lower total cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol in people with high cholesterol levels (73, 74, 75).
- Endothelial function: DHA may protect against endothelial dysfunction, which is a leading driver of heart disease (76, 77, 78, 79).
Bottom Line: DHA may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood triglycerides and blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels and protecting against endothelial dysfunction.
Other Health Benefits
DHA may also protect against the development of other diseases, including:
- Arthritis: It reduces inflammation in the body and may alleviate the pain and inflammation in the joints of people with arthritis (80, 81).
- Cancer: It may make it more difficult for cancer cells to survive. It may also cause them to die via programmed cell death (82, 83, 84, 85, 86).
- Asthma: It may reduce asthma symptoms, possibly by blocking mucus secretion and reducing blood pressure (87, 88, 89).
Bottom Line: DHA may also help with conditions like arthritis and asthma, as well as prevent the growth of cancer cells.
DHA is Especially Important During Pregnancy, Lactation and Childhood
DHA is critical during the last months of pregnancy and early in a baby's life.
Animal studies show that DHA-deficient diets during pregnancy, lactation and weaning limit the supply to the infant's brain to only about 20 percent of normal levels (94).
Deficiency is associated with changes in brain function, including learning disabilities, changes in gene expression and impaired vision (24).
Bottom Line: During pregnancy and early life, DHA is vital for the formation of structures in the brain and eyes.
How Much DHA Do You Need?
Children up to the age of two may need 4.5–5.5 mg/lb (10–12 mg/kg) of body weight, while older children may need up to 250 mg per day (104).
Interestingly, curcumin—the active compound in turmeric—may enhance DHA absorption in the body. It's linked with many health benefits and animal studies have shown that it may boost DHA levels in the brain (109, 110).
Therefore, curcumin may be helpful when supplementing with DHA.
Bottom Line: Adults should get 250–500 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily, while children should get 4.5–5.5 mg/lb (10–12 mg/kg) of body weight.
Considerations and Adverse Effects
DHA supplements are usually well tolerated, even in large doses.
However, omega-3s are generally anti-inflammatory and may thin the blood (111).
Consequently, too much omega-3 may cause blood thinning or excessive bleeding.
If you are planning surgery, you should stop supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids a week or two beforehand.
Also make sure to speak with a doctor before taking omega-3s if you have a blood clotting disorder or take blood thinning medication.
Bottom Line: Like other omega-3 fatty acids, DHA may cause blood thinning. You should avoid taking omega-3 supplements 1-2 weeks before surgery.
Take Home Message
DHA is a vital part of every cell in your body, especially the cells in your brain and eyes.
It's also an essential part of brain development and function. What's more, it may affect the speed and quality of communication between nerve cells.
Furthermore, DHA is important for your eyes and it may reduce many risk factors for developing heart disease.
If you suspect you're not getting enough in your diet, consider taking an omega-3 supplement. It is one of the few supplements that may actually be worth the money.
This article was reposted from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
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1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
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5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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